If you’re celebrating Christmas in a traditional Colonial-era way,
your feast may well include a Christmas pudding. Part of an English
Christmas since the 17th century, the sugary dessert appeared on
sideboards throughout the British colonies in America, a tradition
that persists in many parts of New England even today.
Like so many aspects of the holidays, the creation and
presentation of a Christmas pudding is rich with tradition, including
the custom of stirring a small silver coin into the mix, to be found
by one lucky guest to the Christmas table.
The odds of getting the coin on your plate required a good bit of
luck, which was thought to translate into financial success in the
Typically, a threepence was the coin selected for inclusion in a
Christmas pudding. For those of you who would like to pursue an
authentically Colonial-era Christmas, you have a few options for what
American threepences you could select.
The obvious choice is a 1652 Massachusetts threepence. Included in
the original 1652 authorizing legislation, the denomination was
produced alongside sixpences and shillings from the earliest New
England coinage through the Pine Tree era. Finding an NE threepence to
throw in your dessert would require breaking into the Massachusetts
Historical Society, which wouldn’t be very much in keeping with the
holiday spirit, but that’s where the only known example resides today.
Willow Tree threepences aren’t much more common. The only example in
private hands sold for $632,500 in 2005.
Oak Tree and Pine Tree threepences are a bit more common, easily
acquirable today despite being far scarcer than their shilling and
sixpence brethren. These diminutive pieces are not very popular with
collectors today, perhaps because of their size, so most of them cost
about the same as the much more numerous shillings in the same grade.
If you’re celebrating a Colonial-style holiday outside of New
England, you might consider one of the two types of threepences
produced for circulation in 18th century Maryland, products of the
workshops of John Chalmers of Annapolis or Standish Barry of Baltimore
and coined in 1783 and 1790, respectively. Both threepence coins are
very rare today, leaving even holed pieces costing well into the
thousands of dollars.
We do not recommend cooking with a Higley threepence, coined in
Simsbury, Conn., in 1737. Copper toxicity can lead to everything from
vomiting to a coma.
John Kraljevich Jr. is an independent professional numismatist and
researcher specializing in early American coinage.